A Healthy Fear of Death

Image: A healthy fear of death

During a drunken conversation at a bar, I mention that I'm terrified of dying. My friend says that this is no good, I need to alleviate myself of that fear. Fear is bad, fear holds you back.

But I disagree. I think fear can propel you. I tell him of a concept that I can't remember if I came up with it or not, but it's that good and bad feelings can be like the two pointers on a compass. The positive tell you which way to go, the negative tells you which way to move away from. Both combine to give you the right direction, so long as you are properly oriented.

My friend can concede enough to say that my metaphor is decent and at least creates a reasonable outlook. But, he can't quite get to accepting that fear, and negativity in general, can be a good thing. If he were to coach me, since being a sort of life coach is an ambition of his, he would try to cultivate the negativity and fear out of me. Try and make it so that I am positive in everything.

But it's not that I lack the facilities to do that, it's that I adamantly believe that fear is a good thing, if done right.

If a hungry polar bear were to suddenly come into the room, being afraid of it is a very good thing. Same if someone pulls a gun on you. Or if you might lose all your money and go hungry. Or lots of things. So long as your fear is channeled in a way that makes you figure out which way to run from the polar bear and not just freeze into inaction, then your fear is doing you a service. It's all in how you channel it.

Fear is maybe the most fundamental motivator of all life, even predating sex as an impetus to action. The most primary cells or strands of proteins or whatever it was that floated around in primordial oceans, had something in them that tried not to blithely float into underwater lava vents. Any proto-life that didn't have that function floated into boiling water and disappeared from the evolutionary tree. It wasn't that ancient and primitive life forms developed fear and that kept them alive. It was that they followed the impulses that kept them alive, and later that impulse took on nuance that we now identify as fear.

Fear can go wrong on us because we're so much more complicated, and so is the world around us, so it's not just as easy as backing off from the heat source that might snuff us out. But, as much as it can be hard to identify the problems and strategize about what to do, I don't see the need to avoid danger as being any more of a bad thing than it ever was.

Yet when I talk to just about anyone, they think being afraid of dying is some matter of degrees away from the kind of enlightenment that separates us as beings beyond our biology. Some come at it from a religious perspective, not just that there might be something nice, like a Heaven, waiting for us, but more generally that all of everything has a place and a purpose and a flow that goes beyond our perceptions. You may not be able to conceive of post-death with your current consciousness, but nonetheless, you shouldn't think of it as an end, just a transition.

Even my non religious friends think a fear of death is a handicap. They can only imagine that it means you are being incapacitated by trying to solve a problem you can't solve. You are going to die, so just learn to live with that, never think about it. Any moment thinking, "oh fuck, I'm going to die," is a moment taken from living your life to the fullest.

But I reject that premise completely. I have the capacity to think about lots of things to the degree that I have plenty of room to wonder about death without it making me late for the next appointed thought I should have had instead. And I think contemplating death has its upsides.

I haven't always been very good at thinking about death. I have had times where it did paralyze me and gave me night terrors and all sorts of unhelpful responses. Except, thinking through those difficult realities was part of what got me to a point of acceptance. The acceptance wasn't of death, because I think accepting death is basically undermining an attitude that has kept all life going for over four billion years.

What I accepted was my fear, and it's place in my life. My fear of death is what motivates me to live because one thing I know about death is that I won't be able to do all the cool stuff I could be doing now.

Some atheist thinkers think they're being very clever by pointing out that you didn't exist for an eternity before you were born, so why should you be bothered about the eternity after you die? Because, dumbass, now I know what I didn't know in that previous eternity, which is how awesome it is to be conscious. You can't give me a toy and then take it away and expect me to think of time after the toy as simply equal to the time of when I didn't know the toy existed. I'm not saying you should live in constant disappointment of not having the toy, just that there's entropy in knowledge, you can't reverse into ignorance just because it conveniently comforts you. That kind of thinking is no better than a theist wanting to believe in heaven because it's nicer than oblivion.

As I get older, and my mortality becomes more pressing, I think of what it really means to make the most of the pattern of circumstance that is me before it dissipates into mundane physical reality. I have no concern for leaving any kind of legacy, since I won't be there to experience it. I don't need statues in my honour, couldn't care less. Some of the things I aspire to would seem to be contrary to that, because they have a longevity to them that extends beyond my life. For example, I want to write a comic book, and, like any creator, I hope people really like it and talk about it and all that stuff. But mainly I hope they talk to me about it, while I live. I want to go to a comic book convention and have people come up and say, "hey man, I read that comic, and I really enjoyed it." If that conversation happens between two fans after I'm dead, I'm happy to have made something they like, but I don't really care. I can't care. I'll be dead.

Everything I'm doing I'm doing now for the experience of being alive in the way that I hope to experience it. I want to feel that life, and part of keeping that experience of life going is to contemplate the alternative. Part of the impulse that keeps me moving is knowing what's at stake. It's a fear of death. It's a good thing.

There might come a time to change that. Being sick enough, being hurt enough, being something enough that the experience of life is not the valuable commodity that it is for me now. Everything is negotiable, even my acceptance of death. But for me to enter into that discussion, instead of arguing with me about what it means to be dead, you'd have to redefine what it means to be alive.